Lawyers threaten lawsuit against sheriff’s department over student journalist’s confiscated equipment

Lawyers at the UC Irvine School of Law have filed a complaint against the LA County Sheriff’s Department on behalf of a Long Beach student photojournalist who had his equipment confiscated while covering a protest.

Pablo Unzueta, a journalist at Cal State Long Beach’s Daily 49er newspaper, was arrested while covering a protest over deputies fatally shooting Dijon Kizzee in September. When deputies declared the protest an unlawful assembly and began ordering attendees to leave, Unzueta said he identified himself as a member of the media.

Unzueta was detained, put in handcuffs and booked into jail on suspicion of a misdemeanor. He was released the following day, but his camera, camera bag and cell phone was confiscated, Unzueta said.

Legal counselors from the Student Press Law Center connected with Unzueta, and were successful in retrieving most of his equipment, but when he went to collect his camera, Unzueta said its memory card and his iPhone 11 were still not given back to him. He said that when he asked for his police report, a detective told him he couldn’t give it to him because he was still considered a suspect.

Unzueta said sheriff’s officials told him there was no memory card in the camera when they took it—a claim Unzueta disputed.

“That’s hard to believe,” he said. “The way it’s designed would make it difficult for it to fall out.”

Upon speaking with Unzueta, staff at the UC Irvine School of Law Intellectual Property, Arts, and Technology Clinic sent a letter on Nov. 4 to the sheriff’s department, saying deputies had violated Unzueta’s First and Fourth Amendment rights.

The letter also requests the department return the missing items, issue an apology and affirm the department would not present a case against Unzueta to the District Attorney’s office for prosecution. If requests made in the letter are not met promptly, Unzueta said he would seek further legal action.

LAist first reported the letter on Wednesday.

The whole experience shook Unzueta when it first happened to him, leading him to question his career path. But with a long history of photographers and journalists in his family, Unzueta decided he could not leave the profession he’s come to love.

“It’s not about money or the publicity,” he said. “It’s about exercising my freedom of the press.”

The sheriff’s department did not respond to messages from the Post.

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Sebastian Echeverry is the North Long Beach reporter through the Report for America program. Philanthropic organizations pledged to cover the local donor portion of his grant-funded position with the Long Beach Post. If you want to support Sebastian's work, you can donate to his Report for America position at lbpost.com/support.
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